LA Sheriff resists subpoena power for civilian oversight panel

LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, right, speaks with Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now, a group lobbying for more power for a new Civilian Oversight Commission at the Sheriff's Department.
LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, right, speaks with Mark-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now, a group lobbying for more power for a new Civilian Oversight Commission at the Sheriff's Department. Frank Stoltze

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has said he supports the creation of a new Civilian Oversight Commission to watchdog his problem-plagued department, but his second in command told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday McDonnell opposes giving that panel subpoena power to access deputies’ personnel and other internal records.

“The Sheriff doesn’t know what sorts of people are going to be selected for membership,” Sheriff's Executive Officer Neal Tyler said.

Under a proposal unveiled last week, nine civilians would be selected by the Board of Supervisors to serve three year terms.

McDonnell is concerned members would have a “preconceived agenda,” Tyler said. The Sheriff is instead asking the public to trust him to reform an agency that remains under federal investigation, he said.

“Your trust in him should be very high, and so should the public’s,” Tyler told the board.

McDonnell was elected in November on a reform agenda, after more than 20 deputies were indicted on a range of charges including inmate abuse at the jails and obstruction of justice. He’s been in office seven months.

“Give him a chance,” Tyler said.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas bristled at the idea. He has confidence in McDonnell, but that's not what the debate is about, he said.

“This is not about one given Sheriff,” Ridley-Thomas said. He encouraged his colleagues on the board to “depersonalize” their decision on subpoena power.

“My days of deferring to a Sheriff are over,” Ridley-Thomas said.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommends civilian watchdog panels have subpoena power as a tool to prod intransigent police agencies. Chicago, Philadelphia and San Diego all have civilian oversight panels with subpoena power. 

It at least allows a panel to go to court to seek documents, supporters argue.

In December, the five-member Board of Supervisors voted to create the Civilian Oversight Commission. Now, supervisors are trying to figure out its powers and responsibilities. Giving it subpoena power would require a countywide vote to change the charter.

McDonnell is an independently elected sheriff, and therefore generally not subject to the power of the board or a civilian panel. That’s one reason Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman has been pushing McDonnell to sign an agreement to voluntarily allow him to see personnel and internal documents, including access to ongoing investigations into brutality and other issues.

“Subpoena power itself doesn’t give us access,” Huntsman told the board. That’s because California law provides extraordinary protection to peace officer records and almost any law enforcement record connected to an investigation.

But McDonnell has so far refused to sign any agreement.

“He is concerned about finalizing the memorandum of agreement until he knows for sure whether or not subpoena power will be on the horizon,” Tyler said.

More than four-dozen activists urged the board to give the oversight panel as much power as it could. They said the panel should have both an agreement from the Sheriff for access and subpoena power.

“The only way for legitimate oversight is with subpoena power,” said Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. In a world where more and more people are questioning the tactics of police, “the legitimacy of the sheriff is at stake,” he said.

Pastor Cue Jn-marie of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said Sheriff McDonnell himself should not be the focus of the conversation.

“It doesn’t matter whether we trust the new Sheriff or not,” Jn-marie said. “We don’t trust the sheriff's department.”

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